Denafrips Ares 12th-1 DAC – S$1,549
Denafrips Iris 12th DDC - S$899Prices inclusive VAT, import duties & taxes in Singapore dollars.
IntroductionDenafrips has had a DAC reviewed on the site before, George had bought the Denafrips Terminator and Denafrips Gaia. Since then the company has continued to develop its stable of DACs and Digital Data Converters (DDC) and now felt like a good time to revisit the brand. The current DACs have been updated to celebrate the company’s twelfth anniversary, hence the appended ‘12th’.
I love the form factor of the Denafrips Ares, and it very conveniently slips into the space where my usual Chord Qutest sits. The metal box is undoubtedly utilitarian, but is none the worse for this. The connections on the rear are straightforward and good quality. The sturdy metal box is completed with four conical feet.
I appreciated the warning labels placed over the power socket and the I2S input, to remind you to check and change the unit voltage, if required, and that the I2S was NOT an HDMI socket. Nice attention to detail, and I suspect based on a level of experience!
The Ares 12th-1 is the second cheapest DAC that the company produce at S$1,549 including import duty and VAT from the Vinshine Audio website. In addition to the Ares, the review will add a Denafrips IRIS DDC to the input chain and consider its effect. This is the cheapest of the Denafrips DDCs costing S$899.
What is it that you want from a DAC? Detail? Dynamics? Timbre? Bass weight? I suspect that most audiophiles would say, ‘All of the above’. All wrapped in a bow please. My experience is that as you lower your budget your choices get a bit more compartmentalised. That is you can major on certain facets, but not on the whole shooting match; to get nearer to top rate inevitably costs money, so, how does the Denafrips Ares 12th-1 measure up?
In assessing any DAC you have to consider how it is being fed. Is it fair to assess a one thousand pound DAC using ten thousand pounds worth of input chain? Is this a likely scenario? The answer is that it is unlikely, but it does give you a feel for what is possible. This then allows you to play with the various forms of digital signal processing that are on tap, to again inform you on how the sound can be meaningfully modified.
In this case, Roon was used running on a Vortexbox server.
Initially, tests were done with the bare DAC using the unadulterated Roon stream, that is with no DSP, later I added upscaling within the limits of the coax 24/192 input maximum. This was tested both with and without my Chord M-Scaler.
Having got a feel for this I added the Denafrips IRIS DDC. This has a single input, USB. In order to use USB I switched from my usual dCS Network Bridge (NB) to the Chord 2go/2yu. My review of these small boxes is HERE. Having got a feel for this pairings sound quality I added the IRIS and hooked it up using a Chord HDMI cable via their I2S interfaces.
Joining the two units via I2S was not quite as straightforward as I had hoped. The Denafrips IRIS is fixed, there are no adjustments. When I connected the two boxes, I could see there was communication taking place, as the signal frequency was being correctly passed across; but there was no sound. The Denafrips Ares does have adjustments for the I2S interface, and Alvin of Vinshine has done a number of helpful videos, available HERE. I ensured the I2S was running as 000 and music burst forth.
Test Tracks: The Good, The Bad and the BrightThe tracks were selected to allow:
- Comparison of local and Qobuz sourced versions of the same tracks;
- Comparison of standard and remastered versions of the same track;
- Comparison of older and modern tracks, with their different mastering priorities;
- How problem tracks were presented.
Qobuz Playlist: https://open.qobuz.com/playlist/17235958
The Denafrips Ares 12th in a small black box of anodised aluminium with a line of red LEDs and buttons on the front. The mains power socket has been upgraded, including the use of UP-OCC copper, which has also been used on the O core 60VA transformer.
The Ares is an R2R ladder DAC controlled by Altera FPGA.
The inputs are coax, toslink, USB and I2S.
The outputs are both single-ended and balanced.
Full details can be found HERE.
The DAC can work in one of two modes, Oversampling (OS) and Non-oversampling (NOS). In OS mode the incoming signal is upsampled to 768kHz PCM. In NOS mode the signal is passed through without up sampling. However, as always things are not necessarily that straight forward. In fact an idea of the underlying complexity can be found in a series of four articles published by Audiophile Style HERE.
When in OS mode the DAC can be set to use one of two filters, slow or sharp.
The source was Roon, primarily Qobuz, with:
- headroom enabled;
- Sample rate NOT enabled, initially;
- Parametric EQ Enabled.
Here I must declare a personal dislike. I am very sensitive to emphasised fricatives, such as Ss. It will take me out of the music in a heartbeat. I am prepared to reduce detail and dynamics to avoid the effect, and it will shape my preferences.
The Denafrips Ares 12th-1, in common with earlier iterations of the DAC, allows two modes of operation, NOS and OS; the latter of which allows the selection of one of two filters, slow and sharp, my preference was for slow and so this was used for this review.
As my system is single-ended these were the outputs used, however, I did connect the balanced outputs to a transformer to convert the signal to RCA. My impression was that this did give slight but consistent advantages in microdynamics, that is the presentation of individual instruments. This was even via the Heath Robinson arrangement. If you have a balanced pre-amp, you are likely to get a small uplift in the achieved quality from this DAC.
So, how was it for those of us in the cheap seats? Pretty damn good.
I plugged the unit in, no rear on-off toggle switch any longer, the unit came straight on and I selected the COAX input, fed from my dCS NB. The sound field was ENORMOUS. The midfield had a large richness of tone that pressurised the room and the upper frequencies were a bit thin. Time for some burn-in, so I left it playing some music for forty-eight hours.
When I returned to listening to the DAC the sound stage had reduced, as was the rich tone, but the thin top end was now sounding in much better balance, so the proper listening began. Using the buttons on the front of the DAC I did a compare and contrast between NOS and OS, and the two filters, before settling down to a long listening session using non-oversampling.
You will notice that on the playlist I have included a reasonable selection of rock & pop vocalists. This is due to me finding that this is where the rubber hits the road for me and DACs. Classical tends to be very well recorded and mastered. Classical voices are trained to sing well, and the pieces are written by experts who understand the limits and strengths of the human voice. In rock and pop, you have voices that are frequently straining, and recording and mastering that, even if it is of the best, is trying to present a voice that is being less than kind to the vocal cords that are producing the notes.
For those of you who attended the Audio Consultant’s event at the UK Audio Show I found it interesting that on one of the tracks Alan West’s voice had a few harder Ss, something that wasn’t present in the live performance. In fairness, this was a flying mastering, and may not exist in the final product, but I suspect that this may be an issue that is always needing to be addressed.
The quality of digital recording and mastering is constantly evolving, and I find that the quality can be better today than historically, depending on the requirements that have been asked of the recording engineer.
Hurt by Johnny Cash is simply superb, although certainly not the best recording! The pain in Cash’s voice just pulls you in. When in NOS mode the Denafrips Ares 12th-1 presented an aged voice that has experienced the words that are being sung. The mid-field tone that I mentioned above loaded the air when the piano was underpinning the song.
When I switched to OS there was improved clarity and positioning of instruments within the sound-field, but the vocals and mid-field tone were reduced. I gained the clarity but lost some connection to the pain that Cash is communicating.
I am so impressed with the way Tom Jones has managed his voice as he has aged. He has lost range and power, but his choices mean that he is still producing music that transfixes. From his album, ‘Spirit in the Room’ Jones sings the Leonard Cohen song, ‘Tower of Song’. Cohen's masterful lyrics are well delivered by Jone’s in the song, again focusing on age. This is a song where the Ss are evident, but are not distracting. The NOS delivers Tom’s voice well, and builds the emotional weight as the song moves forward.
Switching to OS the guitar playing was more detailed, but Jones’s voice was less relaxed. The tension I felt was not being delivered by Tom but by the DAC. The frequency extremes were more to the fore, as were the fricatives.
Moving to a more rock-orientated track, ‘No Wow’ by ‘The Kills’. The layers of beats build nicely, but I would say are not completely resolved and clear, or delivered with the power I am used to. The build in the bass from about 1.16 works nicely as the track continues to its crescendo.
In OS mode the percussive start was clearer and more dynamic. The whole track simply had more impact. Alison Mosshart’s voice doesn’t have the human warmth it has in NOS mode, but it is perfectly acceptable and doesn’t detract from the music.
With music focused on the human voice or acoustic instruments my clear preference was for the NOS mode; with rock and pop I often found my choice switching to OS.
I appreciated the ability to easily change the character of the DAC to better suit my musical tastes based on genre and mastering. I was enjoying the Denafrips Ares 12th-1, both for its flexibility and its musicality.
So, what happens if we alter the DAC’s input signal? The Denafrips IRIS only has one input, USB. The dCS NB has no such output.
Earlier this year I reviewed the Chord 2go/2yu, which I have since used in my nearfield system, usefully does have a USB output. In order to get a feel for the effect of the USB Denafrips interface I spent some time listening to the Chord 2go/2yu direct into the Denafrips Ares 12th-1. I was pleasantly surprised. I have habitually been using the DAC coax inputs for years, these two devices have shown me how the world has moved on.
My listening notes echo my views above but with a slight but constant upper-frequency tilt.
Time to engage the Denafrips IRIS. As before, once it was installed and working, I ran music through the combined Ares / IRIS for forty-eight hours before sitting down to listen properly, and the word that kept coming to me through my listening was balance.
Once it was fully run in and I had been through the playlist a few times I played The Police’s album, Ghost in the Machine. I have always found this an interesting recording, a few tracks just grabbed me off the bat, but others needed some repeated listening and are enhanced by being played in a good system. I see this album as almost a microcosm of why the group split up, there is some virtuoso playing by all three, but in service of a shared vision. Some seemingly simple harmonies can host some sophisticated playing. The Denafrips Ares / IRIS gives you insight into all that is happening musically.
For this album, I definitely preferred OS mode, with its added clarity and detail.
I then returned to some music that I enjoy: Act Like You’re in Love, Josephine Oniyama; and, Celestial Echo, Malia and Boris Blank. Both of these tracks can easily be a tad too hot on those pesky fricatives. Whilst in OS mode it almost pulled it off, but for me I preferred NOS mode for these tracks.
I have heard more dynamics and detail, but as a combination, this pairing is very nicely balanced.
ConclusionOne of my main recommendations for any budding audiophile is to foster a good dealer; they can prevent a lot of expensive mistakes and sideways moves; their expertise is worth the price of entry.
This advice doesn’t work so well with makes whose products are sold through the internet. But here Denafrips has an ace up its sleeve, the Ares 12th-1 is a bit of a musical chameleon, changing its character based on its settings and how it is fed. This gives you an excellent chance of getting a very good result with this DAC, indeed, I think you would have to work perversely hard to achieve something less than musical.
Further than this, Denafrips offers you an easy upgrade path that works very well. The bare Ares 12th-1 is a definite contender at or above its price point, adding the Denafrips IRIS raises its game. The sound is very well-balanced. I have heard a more dynamic and detailed sound in my system, but only by paying substantially more than this duo, but more importantly for me, the balance means that I find I can listen and enjoy music from this DAC for hour after hour; something that I think is a primary aim for ANY system.